Only Washington can solve the Swedish-Turkish impasse

Turkey continues to block Swedish and Finnish entry to NATO. While Finland has attempted to mollify the Turks, with whom they generally have good relations, Sweden is taking a hard line against Turkish demands to extradite 28 persons that it claims are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Turkey considers the PKK a terrorist organization, as do the United States and the European Union. Ironically, both Sweden and Finland are members of the EU.

There has been much speculation that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is taking a seemingly uncompromising stance on the entry of the two Nordic states to the alliance because he could face a tough election in June 2023. Erdoğan launched his campaign in Izmir on Thursday and challenged the opposition to name their candidate. Bashing the PKK, and Kurds in general, is good politics in Turkey, especially with the nationalist base, and Erdoğan is nothing if not a masterful politician.

But politics is playing a role in Sweden as well. The Social Democratic government survived a motion of “no confidence” in the justice minister by one vote — that of Amineh Kakabaveh, an independent legislator of Iranian Kurdish origin. Kakabaveh has made it clear that any effort by the Stockholm government to capitulate to Erdoğan’s demands would result in its collapse.

Washington strongly supports Swedish and Finnish accession to NATO. In the matter of Erdoğan’s demands, however, America reportedly has told both the Swedes and the Turks to “work it out yourselves.” Yet, with both countries hostage to domestic politics, it seems unlikely that they can reach a compromise on their own any time soon.

For that reason, the United States should intervene to resolve the dispute. It needs to do so quickly, to ensure Swedish and Finnish accelerated entry into the alliance, and it needs to do so not merely as an honest broker but as an active contributor to any arrangement with Turkey.

Turkish-American relations have been strained ever since Ankara took initial delivery of Russia’s S-400 air defense system in July 2019. Washington responded by expelling Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet development program, a multi-nation effort that Turkey had joined in 2007 and which was worth billions of dollars to Turkish arms manufacturers. Turkey also had ordered more than 100 F-35 aircraft. Once dropped from the program, Turkey demanded the return of $1.4 billion, which represented its contribution to the development effort.

The American decision to expel Turkey from the F-35 program, which it took unilaterally, won bipartisan support in Congress, where Erdoğan has garnered little sympathy over the years. Yet a solution to the S-400/F-35 conundrum also may prove to be the key to enabling Erdoğan to drop his opposition to NATO’s latest expansion effort. Washington could offer to reinstate Turkey to the F-35 program, at least insofar as is feasible given that three years of work on the plane have passed since Turkey’s expulsion.

Turkey would have to take steps regarding its possession of the S-400s, however. In this regard, the statement by the chairman of the Turkish Presidency of Defense Industries that Ankara is inclined to acquire a second tranche of S-400 systems hardly was helpful. Instead, Turkey should consider offloading the systems — perhaps to Ukraine, which already has benefitted from Turkish drones that have wreaked havoc on Russian military targets.

Alternatively, Ankara could ship the S-400s to Northern Cyprus, which it alone recognizes as an independent state. No doubt such a transfer would anger Greece, which might then threaten its own veto of NATO’s two Nordic applicants. On the other hand, air defense systems on Northern Cyprus hardly pose an offensive threat to Greece, nor is Athens planning an air attack on the region, which only then could prompt the S-400s to come into play. Discreet pressure fromWashington could play a major role in placating the Greeks, however, and thereby help convince Athens to go along with such an arrangement.

Whatever shape a deal between Sweden and Finland on the one hand, and Turkey on the other, might take, however, it will come to fruition only if the United States is an active participant and contributor. President Biden has supported Swedish and Finnish accession to NATO enthusiastically. He and his administration, therefore, should leave unturned no stone to ensure that the alliance can expand in the shortest possible time frame.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

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